How ‘The Next Teddy Roosevelt’ Could Be a CEO

A business leader at the bully pulpit? T.R. would ‘roll over in his grave.”

Teddy Roosevelt laughing
National Journal
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Ron Fournier
Feb. 19, 2014, 4:57 a.m.

Two eras eer­ily sim­il­ar, the early 1900s and early 2000s: Massive eco­nom­ic change dis­places leg­acy work­forces, and new tech­no­lo­gies shrink the globe, com­plic­ate life, and re­vo­lu­tion­ize the way people com­mu­nic­ate and so­cial­ize. Out of one era rose Teddy Roosevelt, the “bully pul­pit” and the Pro­gress­ive Move­ment to re­store the pub­lic’s faith in so­cial in­sti­tu­tions.

Out of today’s tu­mult? So far, noth­ing as trans­form­at­ive as the Square Deal or the New Deal, and (for­give me, Pres­id­ent Obama) no sign of a polit­ic­al lead­er as ti­tan­ic as Teddy Roosevelt. We still ask: Who will be the next TR?

The usu­al as­sump­tion is that it will take a polit­ic­al fig­ure ““ a U.S. pres­id­ent, most likely ““ to be­gin the rad­ic­al trans­form­a­tion of polit­ics, gov­ern­ment and oth­er so­cial in­sti­tu­tions, the spade work to launch the next Amer­ic­an Cen­tury.

But maybe our era’s prob­lems are too big for one man or wo­man ““ out­siz­ing even the pres­id­ent.

Per­haps, as well, these chal­lenges are too com­plic­ated to leave solely to the polit­ic­al sys­tem, a dis­cred­ited and con­stip­ated rel­ic. It might be that we need to ret­ro­fit not just one bully pul­pit, but le­gions of them, manned by lead­ers of all walks of life: char­it­ies, col­leges, churches, and even (Lord help us) the en­ter­tain­ment and sports in­dus­tries.

How about cor­por­ate Amer­ica? That’s the ques­tion posed by pub­lic re­la­tions ex­ec­ut­ive Richard Edel­man in a present­a­tion pre­pared for the Da­v­os Eco­nom­ic For­um and shared this week at George Wash­ing­ton Uni­versity, a short walk from the White House.  

His “Trust Ba­ro­met­er” is an an­nu­al glob­al poll that meas­ures the pub­lic’s faith in gov­ern­ment, busi­ness, the me­dia and non-gov­ern­ment or­gan­iz­a­tions such as char­it­ies. The res­ults for 2014 are typ­ic­ally grim. Trust in gov­ern­ment fell glob­ally four per­cent­age points to an his­tor­ic low (44 per­cent), mak­ing it the least-trus­ted in­sti­tu­tion for the third con­sec­ut­ive year. Few people (20 per­cent or less) trust busi­ness and polit­ic­al lead­ers to make eth­ic­al de­cisions, to tell the truth, or to solve so­cial prob­lems.

People are clam­or­ing for gov­ern­ment reg­u­la­tion to pro­tect con­sumers from busi­ness, ac­cord­ing to the Edel­man polling, des­pite the lack of faith in gov­ern­ment. Think of it as a fox guard­ing a fox house.

The thin sil­ver lin­ing is that the pub­lic’s trust of the busi­ness com­munity has sta­bil­ized at 58 per­cent, 14 points high­er than gov­ern­ment.

“Busi­ness can­not in­ter­pret these shifts as a chance to push for de­reg­u­la­tion as it did a dec­ade ago,” Edel­man said. Rather, cor­por­ate CEOs have an op­por­tun­ity to fill the lead­er­ship void in polit­ics. They could lead the de­bate for broad in­sti­tu­tion­al re­form that meets the de­mands of a pub­lic buf­feted by eco­nom­ic and tech­no­lo­gic­al change.

Two points about the sur­vey. First, it has the risk of built-in bi­as, be­ing the product of a pub­lic re­la­tions firm that hopes to at­tract busi­ness cli­ents. Second, it high­lights a cred­ib­il­ity gap between busi­ness and gov­ern­ment that has long ex­is­ted. So why should you care? Well, the res­ults track with those of in­de­pend­ent poll­sters, and the ana­lys­is of Edel­man ““ a thought lead­er on in­sti­tu­tion­al trust ““ is pro­voc­at­ively counter in­tu­it­ive.

He says that step­ping in­to Teddy Roosevelt’s shoes would re­quire cor­por­ate chiefs to ex­pand their fo­cus bey­ond the bot­tom line. Edel­man’s polling re­veals that a ma­jor­ity of people be­lieve com­pan­ies can pro­duce profits while im­prov­ing the na­tion’s so­cial con­di­tions.

“That is a new bar,” he told the audi­ence of cor­por­ate ad­visers and con­sult­ants. “You have to go back to your CEOs and say, ‘You have to as­cend the bully pul­pit (be­cause) gov­ern­ment has stepped down.”

Stepped down? The White House would ob­ject to that char­ac­ter­iz­a­tion. Well aware of the Roosevelt-era par­al­lels, Obama is strug­gling to mod­ern­ize the pres­id­en­tial bully pul­pit after learn­ing that it’s harder to mo­bil­ize voters be­hind policies than for elec­tions.

He had Roosevelt in mind when he launched his “pen and phone” cam­paign, an in­crease in ex­ec­ut­ive or­ders (the pen) and out­reach to non-polit­ic­al lead­ers such as CEOs (the phone). Obama be­lieves that, like Roosevelt, he can use the pres­id­en­tial bully pul­pit to edu­cate the Amer­ic­an pub­lic about the na­tion’s chal­lenges and choices, and that, like Roosevelt, his leg­acy will be com­pleted by suc­cessors.

In a new book, “The Bully Pul­pit: Theodore Roosevelt, Wil­li­am Howard Taft and the Golden Age of Journ­al­ism,” his­tor­i­an Dor­is Kearns Good­win doc­u­ments how Roosevelt trans­formed the pres­id­ency while ex­pand­ing the role of gov­ern­ment in na­tion­al life; how Taft built on his pre­de­cessor’s mo­mentum; and how the new me­dia of their time (the so-called muck­rakers) edu­cated and in­spired a dis­il­lu­sioned pub­lic. In her pre­face, Good­win said her goal was to give read­ers “a bet­ter un­der­stand­ing of what it takes to sum­mon the pub­lic to de­mand the ac­tions ne­ces­sary to bring our coun­try closer to our ideals.”

Can cor­por­ate ex­ec­ut­ives sum­mon the pub­lic to ideals great­er than their profits? Yes, they can. Will they? Even Edel­man chuckled at the thought. “Teddy Roosevelt,” he said, “would be rolling over in his grave.”

NOTE: For more from me on the de­cline in in­sti­tu­tion­al cred­ib­il­ity, read “In Noth­ing We Trust” and “Meas­ure of a Na­tion: We Are the Change.”